PETALING JAYA: A total of 406 cancer patients, 257 migraine patients, 135 Parkinson’s patients and 3,337 people experiencing body aches felt less pain, slept well, and ate better after a month-long experiment.
The patients had received their “treatment” as part of a research project led by Dr Krit Pongpirul, a member of the Faculty of Medicine at Thailand’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University.
The treatment? A drop of cannabis oil.
Krit says the findings of the study involving some 20,000 patients from 30 hospitals throughout Thailand are promising.
His colleague Sornkanok Vimolmangkang, from the university’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, says this is something Malaysia can consider looking into.
The use of cannabis in medical treatments has been a contentious issue in Malaysia, which has some of the most punitive drug policies in the world.
Recently, an engineer who sold cannabis oil to treat cancer patients came close to the gallows until the Federal Court spared him by allowing his appeal on two counts of trafficking. He was still sentenced to five years in jail for possession, though.
In an interview with FMT, both Krit and Sornkanok said many in Thailand had initially opposed the introduction of medical marijuana but solid science is slowly changing perceptions.
It’s not ‘all bad’ nor ‘magic’ either
Krit, who is trained in conventional medicine and health services research, says one of the main challenges facing medical marijuana is the extreme and vague narratives of both its supporters and detractors.
“For one, when we talk about medical marijuana, there are too many products with unclear evidence on disease-specific clinical outcomes, so the detractors assume it is bad because they do not know what researchers are talking about exactly. They think it will lead to other issues.
“On the other hand, those who support medical marijuana make all sorts of claims about it as if it is ‘magic’, and this leads to doubt among conventional medical practitioners.”
He said this is why he decided on a very specific product and systematic approach for his research.
The doctors formulated a cannabis oil which has very low amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are psychoactive compounds. This “ganja oil” was approved by the Thai Ministry of Public Health‘s Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine (DTAM) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for research purposes.
As for what the research aimed to determine, Krit said it focused on not only how the oil helped improve quality of life and also the medical benefits it could have but also how the traditional and conventional medicine doctors prescribe the oil in real clinical settings.
“We were not trying to prove any claims that it cures cancer or anything of the sort.”
Each patient was prescribed a bottle of cannabis oil and was reassessed biweekly during the course of three months, with the patients being able to adjust how many drops of oil they would consume a day.
The patients would have to fill two globally recognised questionnaires to track the effectiveness of the oil in improving their quality of life – the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) and EQ-5D.
After a month of trials, Krit says many who took just one drop of cannabis oil a day found significant improvements in their quality of life with minimal side effects.
The preliminary findings were presented at the American Public Health Association’s 2020 annual meeting and expo in San Francisco.
He said the findings of the second and third month of trials will be published by the Thai Public Health Ministry soon, though the authorities have approved its use for treating pain, insomnia and anorexia in the National List of Herbal Medicine and included in the benefits package under the Universal Coverage scheme to be financially subsidised by the National Health Security Office (NHSO).
It is only distributed through government hospitals.
“Of course, we need more studies, on the other health benefits, how it can be used to treat specific diseases and how cannabis compares with conventional medicine,” he said.
Sornkanok said while there was a lot of opposition against exploring medical marijuana in Thailand, they are seeing attitudes change.
“The research suggests it can bring more good than harm. If it can help people, why not? We just need to change mindsets and perceptions through solid science, and the first step is to be open to research.”